Serving The Reich: The Struggle For The Soul Of Physics Under Hitler

By Philip Ball (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2014), ISBN 13:978-0-226-20457-4, ISBN 13:978-0-226-20460-4 (e-Book), 303 pgs. $30.00

This important book, first published in England in 2013 and made available in the United States by the University of Chicago Press in 2014, warrants careful reading by everyone who wants to understand the decisive implications of the discovery (more correctly, the identification) of uranium fission in Nazi Germany in 1939. Fission had been produced experimentally by Enrico Fermi and his colleagues in 1934 but was ascribed incorrectly to neutron capture by uranium-238.

Most of the scientific information cited by the author is well known to physicists, but it’s constructive for readers, especially physicists, to have the data integrated in this fascinating historical narrative. The main focus is not science but how science was subsequently handled by the scientists working for the authoritarian Nazi regime. Nearly every Nobel prize winner in physics and chemistry in the 20th century is mentioned along with many others including important scientists such as Lise Meitner, Robert Oppenheimer, and Otto Frisch.

One of the book’s principal individuals is the Dutch scientist Peter Debye (1884-1966), 1936 Nobel laureate in Chemistry, director of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics from 1934 until leaving for the United States in January 1940. He was welcomed by Cornell University (Ithaca, New York) as a tenured professor in the Department of Chemistry, where he was honored with a bronze bust in the department entrance hall and where he remained for life. However, his prior elevated position under the Nazi regime came under controversial and negative scrutiny from several sources. One comment: “A Cornell chemist, a Nobel laureate, Roald Hoffman, who lost most of his Ukrainian Jewish family in the Holocaust ...said with respect to the bronze bust ‘I would propose that it be moved where it belongs, into the faculty lounge’—the latter location obviously a delicate euphemism.”

More negative to Debye’s reputation was the opinion of the most prestigious of scientists, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) who had left Germany in 1933 after vicious anti-Semitic attacks by Nobel laureates Philipp Lenard (1905) and Johannes Stark (1919), early advocates of the Nazi movement. Ironically Einstein’s Nobel prize in 1921 was for his quantum explanation of the photoelectric effect which had been experimentally studied and puzzled over by Lenard in prior years. Einstein’s view of Debye’s character as reported by the FBI says: “Einstein advised that he had not heard anything wrong concerning Debye but he knows the man well enough not to trust him; that he Einstein would accept the things as a scientist as being true but would not accept things that Debye says as a man as necessarily being true ...he said he believes Debye is not a person of high loyalty and will do anything for his own advantage ....”

This judgment appears to be supported by the fact that Debye never formally resigned as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm of Physics and seemed to keep the option of returning open in the event of a German victory. It is of interest that the same year (1936) that Debye won the Nobel prize for chemistry, that Victor Hess, the Austrian physicist who discovered what is later designated cosmic rays, won the Nobel prize in physics. After the Anschluss of 1938 which incorporated Austria into the Reich, Hess, a Jew, was arrested for refusing to accept Nazi rule. He immigrated to the United States where he became a distinguished member of the Fordham University faculty in New York City.

The book’s second principle individual, addressed at length, is Max Planck (1858-1947), 1918 Nobel laureate, whose theoretical analysis of black body radiation must be regarded as the pioneering study which led to quantum mechanics. In an amusing footnote, the author writes: “it is sometimes said that Planck made two great discoveries—the second being Einstein.”

Planck’s personal life was marked by tragedy. One son was killed in the first World War. Two daughters-in-law died in childbirth. A second son was executed for joining the unsuccessful conspiracy to assassinate Hitler in 1943. That a person of such outstanding attributes of character, intellect, scientific accomplishment and morality could apparently tolerate living in equilibrium with the Nazi regime, which he opposed, is difficult to comprehend. Philip Ball’s explanation is essentially that Planck rigidly obeyed government law—even grossly unjust Nazi law which he manifestly deplored. Such obedience was built into Planck’s cultural perspective. Ball’s hypothesis is plausible but hard to accept.

In April 1942 Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), 1929 Nobel laureate, replaced Debye as the new director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics which had not had a formally designated head since Debye’s leaving for the United States. In that capacity, he became titular leader of Germany’s effort in the application of uranium fission research. According to Heisenberg and his defenders after the war, his effort was not directed toward making an atomic bomb but toward a failed effort to secure a uranium critical assembly leading to a nuclear reactor for generating electric power.

Quite a different view of Heisenberg’s objective is reflected in a draft of a letter written by Niels Bohr to Heisenberg but never sent. It addresses Heisenberg’s 1941 visit to Bohr’s laboratory in Copenhagen in German occupied Denmark. Wrote Bohr: ”It made a strong impression on both Marguerite (his wife) and me, and on everyone at the institute that you expressed your definite conviction that Germany would win and that it was therefore quite foolish for us to maintain the hope of a different outcome of the war and to be reticent as regards all German offers of cooperation. I also remember quite clearly our conversation in my room at the institute, where in vague terms, you spoke in a manner that could only give me the firm impression that, under your leadership, everything was being done in Germany to develop atomic weapons.” Bohr added in another draft: “You informed me that it was your conviction that the war, if it lasted sufficiently long, would be decided with atomic weapons and I did not sense even the slightest hint that you, Heisenberg, and your friends were making efforts in another direction.”

Despite his universal prestige, Bohr with a Jewish mother was always in considerable danger and in 1943, the Germans began the arrest of prominent Danish Jews who up until then had been relatively free from persecution. Bohr escaped Denmark and finally ended in Las Alamos at the end of the year. He said later: “They didn’t need my help in making the bomb.” However, Robert Oppenheimer who headed the scientific work at Las Alamos observed: “He made the enterprise seem hopeful.”

As the war in Europe came to its conclusion, the principal German scientists either directly or thought to be associated with atomic bomb development were rounded up by the Americans and English. They were confined in a country house called Farm Hall in the town of Godmanchester. Among the ten scientists confined in Farm Hall were Heisenberg and Otto Hahn. It is somewhat surprising, coming from an all encompassing authoritarian political environment, that the group apparently did not suspect all their discussions and conversations were bugged by hidden microphones. Upon hearing of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on the 6th of August 1945, Hahn who had received the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1944 for his pioneering work in uranium fission research, but had little connection with the Nazi atomic work, said to an unbelieving Heisenberg: “You’re just second raters and you might as well pack up.” Heisenberg at this point did not use his later prevarication that he and other German scientists were opposed to bomb making (unlike their inhumane and thoughtless American and English counterparts!) but replied: “All I can suggest is that some dilettante in America who knows very little about it had bluffed them in saying ‘If you drop this, it has the equivalent of 20,000 tons of high explosives’ and in reality doesn’t work at all.”

There is no question that the American success in securing the atomic bomb was in large measure the contribution of individuals like Enrico Fermi (who not Jewish himself, left Axis partner fascist Italy to not endanger his Jewish wife), Hans Bethe, Edward Teller and many others who escaped Nazi dominated Europe. Of course one must mention the famous letter of Einstein to President Roosevelt drafted by him, Leo Szilard and Teller which almost belatedly set the Manhattan Project in motion.

All Jewish physicists representing 25% of the profession in Germany were expelled, imprisoned (or worse). It is this reviewer’s opinion, not explicitly stated by the author, that there is little question that the remaining German physicists would have been capable of developing the bomb. The myth that there was not adequate funding for the program is refuted by the author. He points out that the Peenemunde V-1, V-2 rocket program was comparable to the large cost of the Manhattan Project. The rockets killed 15,000 people in Britain and Belgium and something of the order of 20,000 slave laborers in the deplorable manufacturing process. In my opinion, Werner von Braun who headed the ghastly project does not deserve the adulation he still receives from many quarters because of his later help in the American space program. One wonders whether he should not have been called to account as a war criminal.

The detailed account given by Ball in this carefully researched work leads one to believe that Hitler’s physicists could well have reached the fission bomb first and Nazi Germany could have prevailed in World War II with unspeakable consequences.

Leonard R. Solon
Former Chief, Radiation Branch, Atomic Energy Comm.
Health & Safety Lab.
World War II, Europe, Combat Infantry Badge,
Bronze Star, Order of Legion of Honor (France),
Battle of the Bulge, Rhine Crossing (March 25, 1945).

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.